Massive understatement alert: This Lakers season has not gone as planned. Sorry to hit you with such deep level #analysis this early in the morning, but it’s my job. Sarcasm aside, when you get LeBron James, regardless of circumstances, the hope is that you’d be better off than where the Lakers sit now: 30-36 on the year, losers of 5 straight, and well outside the playoff picture.
Here the Lakers are, though.
One wonders, though, if they actually had to be here. When this season is fully over and the full autopsy is performed, one item that will be one of the root causes of death will be ill-fitting roster construction designed by this front office. In an article at The Athletic today (behind a paywall), Bill Oram reported that the coaching staff lobbied for a different type of roster, but this front office went in the direction it did anyway:
While Buss has been an ardent backer of Walton, she has also empowered Johnson, who has been less resolute in his support. His efforts have all worked against his coach rather than with him. After delivering James in July, Johnson ignored the pleas of the coaching staff that he retain Brook Lopez and Julius Randle. Instead, he signed controversial and limited journeymen JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley and Lance Stephenson.
Let’s try to unpack all of this, because there’s a few different angles worth exploring here.
First, if the blame game wasn’t in full effect, now it surely is. The premise of Oram’s (very well done) piece is that “if Luke Walton is going to be fired at the end of the season, the front office didn’t set him up for success”. Oram’s piece does an excellent job of detailing all the ways Magic Johnson (specifically) could have done more to support Walton, including framing Randle’s and Lopez’s departures as against the coaching staff’s wishes.
In the very public battle for trying to look less culpable for a bad season, fingers are going to be pointed in an attempt to cast blame on whatever fall guy you see as most at fault. I can almost guarantee in the comments of this article there will be some who blame Walton for being a bad coach just as there will be some who blame the front office for giving him this specific team. That said, stating outright that Luke wanted useful players back on this team only to be rebuffed by management is certainly a way for Walton defenders (I’m not saying Oram is one here, by the way, I think he’s just reporting what he knows) to gain some traction in these discussions.
Second, just because Walton and his staff reportedly wanted Randle and Lopez back, it does not mean those two would have been amenable to returning. Over the course of his final two years in Los Angeles, Randle’s relationship with the team deteriorated to the point that he asked for his qualifying offer to be renounced as a restricted free agent this past July so he could freely negotiate and leave to a new team. That does not sound like a player who wanted to return.
The reporting on Lopez wanting to come back has never, at least to my satisfaction, been fleshed out conclusively. I’ve heard reports that he was happy to leave and I’ve heard reports he was surprised the team did not pursue him harder as a free agent/that he would have returned. On an episode of The Lowe Post podcast, Lopez talked around this idea with Zach Lowe and when pressed on the topic he pivoted to being happy in Milwaukee and did not seem particularly forthcoming about how those talks (or lack thereof) went.
Remember, too, that both Lopez and Randle were de-prioritized at various points all of last season. Randle began the season as a reserve and had his role jerked around at different points of the year. By the end of the year Lopez had become a token starter who was not even playing 20 minutes a night. Sure, both players would have been good fits on this year’s team, but it’s hard to know if either actually wanted to return considering how their roles fluctuated and how being viewed as salary cap placeholders who would be swapped out for more expensive, higher profile names in July played into their overall feeling towards the organization.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, all of this is just a mess. The final couple months of this season have turned from playoff chase to punchline. And while it’s easy for fans to choose sides and point to a bad roster or the coach’s poor decision making as the ultimate culprit, these things always work hand in hand. When things end this poorly, there’s more than enough blame to go around and anyone pointing too hard in one direction are probably playing it out too simply in their minds, have an axe to grind, or both. Whatever, do you, I guess.
In the end, though, the on-court messiness is, seemingly, becoming an off-court problem too. And in those situations, everyone ends up looking bad. Get it together, Lakers.